- The Washington Times - Monday, April 25, 2005

NEW YORK — As Brad Wilkerson hopped up and down in the first inning yesterday, incredulous over the fact that he’d been called out on a bang-bang play at the plate, you couldn’t help but wonder if the Washington Nationals were headed for another one of those days.

Any momentum that might have been building from a quick start against the New York Mets seemed ready to dissipate into thin air, gone on an apparent blown call by plate umpire Gary Cederstrom.

Then the Nationals did something manager Frank Robinson has rarely seen from his club this season. They kept hitting, and they kept scoring runs. Jose Guillen lofted a sacrifice fly to right. Terrmel Sledge singled to left. Vinny Castilla beat out a slow roller. And Gary Bennett drilled a two-run single to left-center.

The tone had been set, and by the time the crowd of 43,313 filed out of Shea Stadium three hours later, Washington had cruised to a much-needed 11-4 victory.

“That showed a lot,” Wilkerson said of the rally following his play at the plate. “Momentum could have shifted there, but we kept on it and came through with some quality at-bats.”

The kind of quality at-bats that had been in short supply in recent days for the Nationals. Robinson had been harping for some time about the need for better trips to the plate, especially early in games, and his club responded with its most productive offensive showing of the year.

Washington, which had scored a total of five runs during the first three innings of its last 15 games, put up three in the first inning alone yesterday. Then for good measure, the Nationals (10-9) added one in the third, two in the fourth, two in the sixth and three in the eighth en route to a blowout win over the Mets.

“It goes to show you — if you score runs in the first four innings, it makes for a nice game for you,” Robinson said. “When you’re struggling and don’t score in the first part of the ballgame, and you’re trying to score in the last four innings, it makes it tough.”

As luck would have it, Washington needed as many of those early runs as it could get. Despite the three-run lead it gave starter Livan Hernandez before he ever took the mound, the staff ace proceeded to give all three runs back on Mike Piazza’s bases-loaded double in the first.

Having thrown 31 pitches and walked two by the time he returned to the dugout, Hernandez (2-2) looked like he might be in for a long day.

The right-hander responded, though, with six shutout innings after that, retiring 13 of the last 14 batters he faced to earn his first victory since their first game at RFK Stadium 10 days before.

“I made so many pitches in the first inning. I started throwing the ball all over the plate,” said Hernandez, who wound up scattering nine hits and two walks over his seven innings. “I had to stay in the game and make some pitches. Past the third inning, I started [pitching with] more control. I felt much better.”

Hernandez’s confidence was only boosted by the massive run support he finally got from his teammates, who had only scored 15 total runs in his first four starts. That was no issue yesterday, with the Nationals jumping all over Mets starter Victor Zambrano (1-2) for eight runs in 51/3 innings.

Wilkerson was one of the main contributors, launching a two-run homer to right-center off Zambrano in the fourth en route to a 4-for-5 afternoon. Wilkerson, who came a triple shy of his second cycle of the year, did record four hits for the third time in 19 games.

He was joined by Vinny Castilla, who also went 4-for-5 in posting his second four-hit game of the year. Castilla even added two stolen bases for good measure — doubling his total from the last two seasons combined.

Actually, everyone in the Nationals’ lineup contributed. All eight position players recorded at least one hit, with Wilkerson, Castilla, Bennett, Nick Johnson and Jose Vidro all boasting multiple-hit games.

“It was good for us to get on them early,” said Wilkerson, who took a throw off his right forearm in the ninth inning but appeared to be OK afterward. “That sets the tone for the game in a lot of ways. It did for our hitters today, and it just continued on for the whole game. We came up with some big hits.”

The win propelled Washington back over the .500 mark and kept it from heading back to RFK for this week’s homestand against the Phillies and Mets with its heads hanging.

“It wasn’t a must-win game, but for our mental psyche, I think we certainly needed it very badly,” Robinson said. “Coming out of a road trip here, if we had lost three in a row, that would not have been very good for our state of mind.”

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